NASHVILLE — U.S. Sen. Bob Corker described as "kind of humorous" his first meeting with President Donald Trump after he publicly criticized the president over comments about who was at fault in a deadly Charlottesville, Va., clash between white supremacists and counterdemonstrators.
Appearing on Sunday's NBC's "Meet the Press," the Tennessee Republican, who grabbed national attention by stating the president had "yet" to demonstrate the necessary "competence" and "stability" for his job, told host Chuck Todd that, "Oh, he remembered it."
"I said, 'Mr. President, I stand by what I said."
"He said, 'You called me incompetent.' I said, 'Mr. President.' I knew it was coming, right?" recalled Corker, who said he and Trump spent about five minutes on the topic.
But Corker noted he emphasized the word "yet" in his remarks at the Chattanooga Rotary Club in August, a qualifier largely overlooked in national news accounts.
"What I said is he has not yet demonstrated some of the competence and some of the stability," Corker said, adding that, "We need for him to be successful. I mean, the country needs him to be, the world needs for him to be successful."
Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor and now Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman said, "I don't make comments like that without thinking. I chose the words. I stand by those words."
He announced last week he won't seek re-election to a third term next year.
On Sunday, he said it is "hard to leave," but added, "I told people in Tennessee [in his 2006 campaign] that I couldn't imagine serving more than two terms. For this entire year, I've struggled over this. I really have, because I know of the difference I'm able to make here."
He added, though, that "now I've got 15 months of even more freedom in many ways. And I'm going to do everything I can to have the biggest impact possible."
Democrats already were beginning to make an issue of Corker's statement in the 2006 GOP primary. It came as two other candidates pledged to limit themselves to two terms.
Corker's criticism brought sharp fire from the right. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon, now heading Breitbart News, was seeking a hard-right candidate to challenge him in the 2018 GOP primary.
Several Tennessee Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, are now weighing bids for the seat.
The only announced candidate is Republican Andy Ogles, former head of the billionaire Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity. Some who are eyeing the contest may be drawn to Blackburn's Middle Tennessee congressional seat if she runs for the Senate.
'Discipline' in the White House
Corker told Todd that new chief of staff Gen. John Kelly has brought an "air of discipline" to White House operations that has proven "transformative."
Describing himself as a "deficit hawk," Corker also said of the pending federal budget bill and tax overhaul that "if it looks to me like ... we're adding one penny to the deficit, I'm not going to be for it."
While Republicans have campaigned on and pushed for fiscal discipline for years, Corker complained, now "it's like there's a party going on up here, OK? Heck with ... constraining spending."
Todd asked Corker about the controversy over NFL players kneeling instead during the national anthem and Trump's call for team owners to fire them.
"I would not have weighed in," Corker said, later adding, "I know it plays to the base. I know that's a constant thing that's on the president's mind."
"Probably it's best for us to stay with the things that we have control over and let the private sector, let the people who are involved in ticket sales, let the people that are involved with athletes, let them make decisions about what needs to happen on the field."
The senator is a close friend of Cleveland Browns team owner Jimmy Haslam of Knoxville, brother of Gov. Haslam, who is considering a run for Corker's seat .
Last week, Jimmy Haslam tweeted out a state in which he and his wife, Dee, called Trump's comments "misguided, uninformed and divisive."
Ahead of Sunday's NFL game schedule, Trump on Saturday returned to the kneeling controversy.
"Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!" he wrote in a tweet.
About leaving office in 2019, and colleagues including Democrats saying they're sorry to see him go, Corker joked, "I told people if I knew they were going to say such nice things about me I would have retired earlier."
"I mean, it's been wonderful. ... I hope, I think I'm going to have more impact over the next 15 months than I've had in the last 10 years."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter @AndySher1.